When UChicago Moot Court Vice President of Oral Advocacy Coaching Danna Burshtine learned that she and her partner Lily Hong had made it to the final round of the National Moot Court Competition, she jumped out of her seat shouting.
“That excitement was a two-fold thing,” Burshtine, a third-year at the College, recounted. “Lily and I jumped and danced around because of our own success. But the other and more exhilarating part was watching my team members get so hyped over their own victories, too. As the coach, it’s fulfilling to see how your teammates have grown over time.”
A member of the American Moot Court Association (AMCA), UChicago Moot Court was founded in 2013 by Tyler Ross (A.B. ’16) and Tessa Weil (A.B. ’15). The club is currently ranked seventh overall by the AMCA in 2021, fourth in oral advocacy, and twenty-third for brief writing out of around 500 certified member schools. In the fall, UChicago also hosts the Second City Invitational, a two-day tournament that invites collegiate teams from across the nation. This season, the tournament was hosted online—two University of Central Florida teams bested 26 others to take home the title.
Members of Moot Court engage in simulated appellate-level debates for fictional cases, read and research case law, and prepare arguments for both sides in regional and national competitions. Some members join the oral advocacy team—in which each member defends their argument in front of a panel of judges—while others opt for writing case briefs. This year’s issue focused on the constitutionality of a federal vaccine mandate for polio and how it affects the Commerce Clause, which grants Congress the power to regulate international and interstate trade alongside commerce with Indigenous tribes and individual bodily autonomy. Historically, congressional invocation of the Commerce Clause has faced controversy over the balance of power between the States and the federal government.
For the UChicago Moot Court team, practice for regional and national competitions spans over summer, autumn quarter, and winter break. “As the Vice President of Recruitment, I looked for students interested in salient legal issues. This year’s vaccine topic brought in a fantastic team,” Hong explained to the Maroon. “We read the case over the summer. [During] autumn quarter, we practice twice a week for two hours at a time. But we decided to [slot] in two extra hours weekly for practice over winter break. Our oral advocates even did three to four rounds outside of practice!”
Unlike most other Moot Court institutions, UChicago’s team is entirely student-run, with upperclassmen coaches leading oral advocacy rehearsals and the brief writing process. Burshtine, who oversees the coaches, decides how much oral advocacy practice to pack in before regional and national tournaments. To supplement practices, she organizes office hours alongside Assistant Oral Advocacy Coach Rishabh Shashtry to brainstorm and polish arguments of their team members. The two also judge mock rounds during their practice rehearsals. Vice President of Brief Writing Coaching Shannon Chung and Assistant Brief Writing Coach Bert Chu also host office hours to provide feedback to their writers, who will submit 30-page case briefs to their judges when the competition begins.
The National Moot Court Competition runs over the course of three days, from January 21 to January 23. Oral advocacy teams who win their rounds on their first day advance to the second and third. For UChicago Moot Court, this season was unprecedented—all of their teams made it to the second day.
“We qualified eight and a half teams,” Moot Court president Anna Selbrede recalled. “We knew our sheer number of teams in competition was historical, not only for our UChicago crew, but for our peers at other schools too. I don’t think even Patrick Henry College, who sweeps in intercollegiate Moot Court competitions, has gone to the Top 60 with as many teams as our RSO.”
Three teams (second years Marie Ardy and Ethan Ostrow, first years Vikram Ramaswamy and Cherie Fernandes, and fourth years Marc Motter and Micah Clark Moody) advanced to the Top 16. Third years Lily Hong and Danna Burshtine won the overall runners-up title after competing with Marco Romero and Vaishalee Chaudhary from California State University, Long Beach (CSULB). Ardy and Ostrow also placed second in the national respondent brief writing competition. Hong and Burshtine’s ranking marks the second time that UChicago Moot Court won the runners-up title in AMCA national; Henry Filosa (A.B. ’20) and Rebecca Lin (A.B. ’19) placed second in the 2017-2018 season.
Fernandes attributes Burshtine’s coaching and office hours to her team’s success, recalling how they read, reread, and re-re-read case laws, shared annotated notes with other oral advocate teams, and brainstormed hypothetical questions that the panel of judges might ask during the tournament.
“Moot success depends on [Burshtine’s] lesson plans,” Fernandes joked. “During our Tuesday and Thursday RSO meetings, she outlined what we wanted to cover. It’s a lot, but it’s a lot for a reason. Twice a week, we would research relevant law cases and figure out how to use them through hypothetical scenarios [oral advocates might see] in the competition. The bulk of practice after we organized our arguments was simulated debates, with Danna judging which team wins.”
Due to the recent surge of Omicron cases in the United States, the 2021-2022 national competition occurred remotely. Hosted through Zoom, the process nevertheless was nearly identical to its in-person counterpart: the judge enters (the virtual space), the clerk describes the subject matter, and the Mooters take turns presenting their argument either as a petitioner or respondent. Finally, the judges adjourn the court to deliver their verdict and offer feedback to competitors.
“It feels like a dance,” Ramaswamy said of the competition’s virtual flow. “For me, this feeling began way before I argued in front of the judges. I listened to my hype music before every round, and Cherie and I texted each other for luck. The actual competition itself is the judge [and I] having a back-and-forth.”
The final round was live-streamed to a public audience; it ended with the judges declaring CSULB the winner of the 2021-2022 season. When asked about the highlight of her experience at the national final round, Burshtine referred to an aspect in which she did not directly participate—the Slack support network her teammates created to cheer her and Hong as they competed against CSULB for the national title.
“Our entire team watched and essentially live-tweeted whatever they thought on Slack, complimenting our counter-arguments and being supportive,” Burshtine reflected. “[Lily and I] scrolled through their conversation post-competition and had a good laugh over it. I think it’s fitting for our team, you know? We work best when we’re all together.”
As spring approaches, Mooters will revisit this season’s case to both train veteran members and recruit prospective brief writers and oral advocates to the world of appellate argumentation. In the meantime, they can be found perusing through case law to compete in their annual spring intra-team invitational tournament—undoubtedly, with more biweekly lesson plans to follow.